Troubling questions behind Tibetan sales

By Souren Melikian International Herald Tribune, Saturday, October 23, 2004

NEW YORK, USA -- Perhaps those who buy sculptural fragments broken off Buddhist structures from Afghanistan to Tibet and other Asian countries are beginning to have second thoughts. Watching the sale "Indian & South East Asian Art" at Sotheby's on Sept. 24, any observer aware of the background of some of the works must have experienced deep unease.

The work on the catalogue's cover, a Tibetan bronze statue of a 14th-century, four-armed seated figure, Shadakshari Avalokiteshvara, was a disturbing sight. Set on a pedestal against a partition, it sat behind the last row of seats arranged for bidders. The Buddhist statue gave the jarring impression of a parody of respect to a culture whose sacred images have been scattered to the winds by invaders during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

To underline the statue's importance, the catalogue referred readers to M.M. Rhie and Robert Thurman's "Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet (expanded edition)" and noted that "it is one of very few large Tibetan cast-metal temple sculptures of the period to exist outside Tibet." Pious remarks about the image that "embodies the essence of Shadakshari's mantra, OM MANI PADME HUM, (Hail the jewel in the lotus)" concluded the entry.

No one raised a hand as the auctioneer called out $600,000 and brought down his gavel, leaving it unsold. Maybe the estimate, $650,000 to $750,000, plus the sale charge, did not help. Maybe there was something else.

This was the second major work to suffer failure. Earlier, the majestic, gray schist figure of a 2nd or 3rd century standing Buddha missing its head, one hand and both legs had remained unsold at $165,000. The drapes are handled with the calligraphic stylization that transformed the Hellenistic legacy in the East Iranian world and its area of influence in northwestern India under the Iranian dynasty of the Kushans. The style is found across the lands inhabited by the Pashtun in the North West Frontier of present-day Pakistan. Buddhist sites in the area have been ravaged for 150 odd years for commercial purposes.

Pakistan has long banned the export of such works, but the problem is implementing the law. In countries that are vast and in areas that escape central government control - or where corruption plays a part - enforcement rarely happens. That has long been the excuse invoked by those who bought these works in America, Europe and Japan. Nowadays, the excuse is increasingly wearing thin. The trade in illicit antiquities appears too highly organized for comfort.

There is anger in academic circles at the sight of stucco sculptures that look distressingly similar to those of sites plundered by the Taliban in southeastern Afghanistan. Some wonder how the symbolical mausoleums for relics of the Buddha, called stupas, supposed to have been the object of destructive wrath at the hands of fanatics, have become transformed into art quarries. Others shudder when they see terracotta pieces such as the "head of a man, 4/5th century" in Sotheby's sale, and others handled in the art trade. These suggest that new sites - revealing unknown aspects of the art born somewhere between Balkh in the north of present-day Afghanistan and Bamian further south, are being devastated.

Each time debris from previously unknown schools turn up, chapters of unwritten history get erased. Our knowledge of cultural and artistic developments in these key areas for the history of Buddhist expansion across Asia remains miserable. The blanket denomination "Gandhara," used to cover the many different schools of Buddhist art in Pakistan and Afghanistan, is little more than a fig leaf to cover our ignorance - the Sanskrit texts from which the word was borrowed do not even say just where Gandhara was. Archaeology holds the key to many secrets and that key is tossed into the dustbin by commercial destruction.

Collectors for their part often dread venturing into uncharted territory. They worry that this makes it easier for forgers to practice their craft.

Another fear now haunts potential buyers. Restitution rulings for goods stolen by the Nazis or simply bought by ordinary citizens from their Jewish owners in occupied lands during World War II has convinced many of them that acquiring works of art originally wrested from their rightful owners in outrageous circumstances entails risks.

The restitutions agreed to by the loftiest institutions, the Louvre museum included, have extended to works properly bought from owners who were themselves unaware of the past history of the works. This means that bona fide acquisition no longer legitimizes ownership and that the old notion of prescription after a delay does not apply to outrageous circumstances. Some have apparently worked out for themselves that the devastation of Tibet, the rape of Cambodia in the wake of the Vietnam War, the destruction of Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and the Taliban terror qualify as outrageous.

The danger for buyers goes beyond the risk of future lawsuits. Even if none should take place, the opprobrium that is beginning to surround the ownership of works of art illicitly dug up can only intensify, making later resale problematic. At the very least, it reduces their commercial potential. In the worst of cases, it will make the sale of objets d'art without a verifiable past going back 50 or 60 years, well nigh impossible. When the bill is in the area of $200,000 or more, Sotheby's sale appeared to suggest, these fears can have an inhibiting effect.

For the moment, though, that is not always the case. On Sept. 23, Christie's had its greatest commercial success ever with its sale "Indian and South East Asian Art." Small and large statues broken off from their original sites sold like hot cakes. A marvelous stucco head disturbingly reminded me of the figures at Hadda, near Jalalabad in Afghanistan, where major stupas were destroyed, reputedly by the Taliban. It went for $14,340.

Later, an 11th-century sandstone standing figure of a woman in the Baphuon style of Angkor Wat, with one arm sawed off, half of the other missing, and chopped off at the ankles, evoked memories of the havoc wrought in the greatest Buddhist temple city in Cambodia. This did not stop it from becoming the most expensive Khmer sculpture ever auctioned, as furious bidding sent it climbing to $1.12 million.

In truth, the memory of crimes against world culture were not much of a deterrent that week.

At Christie's, a sublime head broken off some late 10th-century statue somewhere in Angkor or nearby sold as briskly as the record statue. It almost tripled its estimate at $41,825.

At Sotheby's, memories of past destruction also seemed hazy. They did not wreck the chances of a beautiful gilt copper makara in a style typical of the Densatil monastery, that jewel of 15th-century Tibetan architecture. Photographed by an Italian team in the 1930s, the monastery was destroyed in the 1970s in one of the worst atrocities committed against world culture by the Red Guards. The mythical beast sold for $16,800.

Was it right or wrong to buy it? Some will argue that it is better for the piece to be silently admired by a collector respectful of Buddhist art than to go on knocking about the market and risking further damage. Others may stay away from a fragment blighted by destructive fury, wherever it was unleashed. This is a moral dilemma to be resolved by each one of us according to our convictions. Cynics will add that at that price the risk involved was minimal. But there were quite a few failures of low-priced works as well as of expensive ones. In a market starved for goods, where some are prepared to pay the earth, this may mean that a new approach to the debris of destroyed monuments and archaeological sites across Asia is looming.

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